Lincoln preferred an overland campaign toward Richmond, but McClellan proposed an amphibious maneuver in which the Union Army would land on the Virginia Peninsula, effectively circumventing General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army. McClellan put his Peninsula Campaign into action in March 1862, landing over 120,000 men on the coast and proceeding east toward the Confederate capital. The Confederates withdrew toward Richmond, and McClellan’s troops fought their way to within only a few miles of the city. Despite his strong position, McClellan failed to capitalize on his tactical advantage, once again believing that he might be outnumbered. When General Robert E. Lee took control of Confederate forces on June 1, he launched a series of bold offensives that culminated in the Seven Days Battles. Furious at Lincoln’s refusal to send him reinforcements, McClellan retreated to the base of the James River, at which point his army was ordered to return to Washington.
Aggravated at what he saw as indecisiveness on the part of McClellan, Lincoln had grown dissatisfied with his most famous general. But after Lee scored a decisive victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, he grudgingly called McClellan back into action in defense of Washington. Lee soon mounted an invasion of the North during the Maryland Campaign, and in September 1862 McClellan’s forces engaged the Confederates at the Battle of Antietam. After McClellan’s forces succeeded in breaching the Confederate lines, he once again stalled, keeping over a third of his army in reserve and allowing Lee to retreat into Virginia. The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day of combat in the Civil War, and while it was presented as a Union victory in the Northern press, it was in effect a tactical draw. Frustrated that McClellan had again failed to destroy Lee’s army, Lincoln officially removed him from command in November 1862.